Anatomy of Beltway conventional wisdom

From Drudge/Politico to right-wing outlets to CNN and the New Republic, how petty and cheap personality attacks dominate our political discourse.

Published April 18, 2007 12:56PM (EDT)

(updated below - updated again)

We have been treated in the last 48 hours to an extremely vivid illustration of how conventional political Beltway wisdom is created. It all began with The Politico's in-house gossip, Ben Smith, who on consecutive days published a gossipy, petty article designed to fuel right-wing caricatures of the personality traits of John Edwards and Barack Obama, respectively.

First was a story on Monday about the costs of Edwards' haircuts and visits to a spa, plainly intended to fuel the principal right-wing anti-Edwards caricature -- his effeminate obsession with his hair.

That was followed by another Smith story yesterday ripping out of context a small part of Obama's speech -- in which he spoke of various types of "violence" (beyond physical violence) that create divisions in America. Attaching himself to the prevailing anti-Obama cliche, Smith asserts that these excerpts illustrate Obama's "instinct for abstraction and large themes, and his sense that America's problems have at their root solutions that have as much to do with hope and process as with any specific course of action."

Obama's crime? Instead of proposing specific policies to "solve" the problem of school shootings (as though such problems can be "solved"), Obama "moves quickly to the abstract: Violence, and the general place of violence in American life." In the rotted world of Beltway media cynicism, any talk of "root solutions" or "ideas" or "abstract concepts" is automatically insincere, irrelevant and merely a tactic for avoiding "real substance."

Predictably, both Politico items were immediately trumpeted by Drudge, almost certainly the real goal of Smith's stories. Thereafter, the standard right-wing hacks then dutifully followed along, reciting the exact storyline manufactured by Smith and Drudge. The conventional wisdom-spewing internet gossip Mickey Kaus then joined in with an item entitled "Barack the Hack," which claims -- in an act of extreme projection -- that the speech reflects "a mindset that tries to fit every event into a familiar, comforting framework he can spoon-feed his audience without disturbing them." Kaus says the Obama excerpts are "not exactly evidence of a fresh intelligence, or even basic common sense" -- but that "Democratic primary campaigns will do that to you."

The Associated Press then does its part, churning out a story, published by CNN (among others), that begins with this sentence: "Looking pretty is costing John Edwards' presidential campaign a lot of pennies." The Associated Press then interviewed Edwards' hair stylist, and reported that he admitted this: "'I do cut his hair and I have cut it for quite a while,' Torrenueva said. 'We've been friends a long time.'"

All of that leads The New Republic, a day late but right on script, to lament the effeminate and vain Edwards and the shallow and empty Obama. Eve Fairbanks posts an item she headlines "He Feels Pretty and Witty and . . . ." in which she let's us know that she (of course) is far too sophisticated and serious to "give a damn that Edwards went to the Pink Sapphire." It is striking how they all use the word "pretty" to describe how John Edwards wants to look. She then links to the three-year-old You Tube clip of Edwards brushing his hair. Is any of this, at its core, any different than the oh-so-aberrational-and-universally-condemned Ann Coulter remark about Edwards?

Fairbanks revealingly justifies her post by claiming that "the fact that the haircut and the Pink Sapphire is a CNN top headline on a huge news day suggests that, sadly, plenty of people still think of Edwards like this." In her world, the media's chatter -- in which (as she herself was doing) they repeat Drudge gossip -- is proof of how "plenty of people" think. As always, Drudge rules their world -- if he selects a story to trumpet, and the media (as they always do) dutifully follow, that is proof, by itself, of the story's importance.

Not to be outdone, The New Republic's Isaac Chotiner follows with a post entitled "Obama Hits Bottom," which also cites Smith's Politico piece and warns Obama supporters they "have to face up to the fact that his speeches can be really, really grating." He then labels the parts of the speech cited by Smith as "disappointing" and "obnoxious."

Needless to say, it is perfectly fine to criticize all candidates running for president. That is something that ought to be done, vigorously and frequently -- obviously including Obama and Edwards. There are plenty of grounds to question both of them. And, admittedly, a candidate's speech is obviously far more legitimate grounds for such criticism than the costs of his haircut or which spas he visits.

But none of this is substantive criticism. It is just petty, cheap personality-based mockery of the strain that dominates (and degrades and destroys) our political discourse -- it is Al Gore inventing the Internet and claiming to be the inspiration for Love Story, and John Kerry wind-surfing and speaking French. It is all just mindless gossipy shorthand intended to fuel right-wing caricatures and platitudes that have nothing to do with substance and everything to do with demonizing the personality of these political figures in order to render them ugly and embarrassing -- hence, Edwards is a girlish fop and Obama is an intellectual lightweight who relies on empty fancy-sounding buzzphrases in lieu of substance.

What is notable here is not so much the specific petty attacks, but the method of how they are disseminated and engrained as conventional wisdom among our Really Smart Political Insiders. This is the process that occurred here, and it is the process that repeats itself endlessly:

STEP 1: A new right-wing gossip (Ben Smith) at a new substance-free political rag (The Politico) seizes on some petty, manufactured incident to fuel personality caricatures of Democratic candidates.

STEP 2: The old right-wing gossip (Drudge) uses his old substance-free political rag (The Drudge Report) to amplify the inane personality caricatures.

STEP 3: Right-wing hacks with pretenses of respectability -- like Mickey Kaus and others -- follow the script by "analyzing" the gossip and embracing it.

STEP 4: National media outlets -- such as AP and CNN -- whose world is ruled by Drudge, turn the gossip into "news stories."

STEP 5: Our Serious Beltway Political Analysts -- in this case, the very somber and smart Substantive Journalists at The New Republic -- mindlessly repeat all of it, thereby solidifying it as conventional wisdom, showing that "even Democrats and liberals are embarrassed by their candidates."

One should note here that Step 5, the Final Stage, is almost always sponsored by those who endlessly proclaim how irresponsible and substance-free and unserious political bloggers are, and who thereafter write pieces which do nothing other than repeat the latest Drudge gossip.

For instance, last week -- before she was writing about John Edwards' haircuts and spa visits based on Politico/Drudge gossip -- The New Republic's Eve Fairbanks was writing in The New York Times attacking a new book on "framing" by blogger Jeffrey Feldman. Fairbanks -- the author of the "He Feels Pretty and Witty and . . . ." post -- solemnly lamented "the idea that winning elections in America is all a game of spin and wordplay," complained that Feldman's book was filled with "the kind of smaller-bore observations" in which bloggers -- but not Important Book Authors -- traffic; and condemned Feldman's analysis as "shockingly simplistic, almost childlike."

The crux of her attack on Feldman's book is her belief that Feldman is too cynical about American politics, and that his "framing" theories are too bereft of substance:

But Feldman's Americans are not the kind who stand for hours at a Lincoln-Douglas debate, who ever ask their politicians to substantively persuade them of the rightness of ideas or weigh arguments in the voting booth. They -- we -- are more Pavlovian. Our brains are like vast blinking switchboards; the successful politician is the one who presses just the right buttons ("equality," "enemy") to light up the sequence of neurons that makes our hands shoot out and pull the lever marked "D."

I have not read Feldman's book -- so I do not know whether this applies to it -- but I happen to agree with the view that an emphasis on "framing" is too simplistic and sloganeering, and eschews the need to do the much more important work of substantive persuasion. But it is hard to imagine a more inappropriate lecturer on the Importance of Substance over Style in our political process than the same pundit who just followed along in the sleazy footsteps of Drudge and The Politico by reciting the idiocy about John Edwards' haircuts and linking to a You Tube clip of his brushing his hair.

But this is the process that generates our country's petty conventional political wisdom. And it is these types of personality stories which are often outcome-determinative. The 2004 presidential election (and the one before it) were not determined by an ideological choice between fundamentally different competing political philosophies, but instead, were largely the by-product of personality-based cultural preferences -- in the case of the last election, the swaggering, strong, resolute, protective cowboy over the mewling, wind-surfing, effete French fop. In our Drudge-ruled media world, these are the storylines which dominate our political process.

Those who live in the World Ruled by Drudge -- such as Eve Fairbanks, Mickey Kaus and the other Serious, Sober, Important Journalists -- ceaselessly tout their own substance and seriousness and pompously lament how irresponsible and "simplistic" everyone else is. Meanwhile, most of what they write is barely disguised political cliches and personality gossip that have nothing to do with any actual substance, and it is fed to them by the lowest and sleaziest sources around.

UPDATE: I noted this in passing, but Greg Sargent focuses on one of the most remarkable parts of this whole miserable episode -- namely, that The Associated Press begins its ostensible news article with this sentence: "Looking pretty is costing John Edwards' presidential campaign a lot of pennies."

As Greg explains: "You already have a long history here, with assorted GOP operatives labeling Edwards the 'Breck girl'; Ann Coulter calling him a 'faggot'; and Rush Limbaugh asking whether Edwards might be our 'first female President.'" And now we have AP and The New Republic following right along. That is how this process always works.

UPDATE II: Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post's top Michelle Malkin fan, approvingly quotes the Politico item on Edwards' haircut, playfully calling it "a lighter item." Kurtz is the Post's (and CNN's) "media critic."

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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